The Making of a 100-Point Wine: A Decadent, Balanced Fortified Wine

Chief Winemaker Fiona Donald in the Centennial Cellar / Photo by Dragan Radocaj

How can a wine be perfect? My skepticism regarding 100-point wines has always revolved around this question. Then one Friday morning, I encountered it for the first time in my four years as a Wine Enthusiast reviewer: perfection in liquid form.

I found myself asking the opposite question: How can I not give this wine 100 points? In what ways is it imperfect? I had to admit it. There weren’t any. Beneath my glowing review, I typed a big, fat 100.

It’d be tempting to describe how tough it was to dole out my first 100-point score. In truth, it was the easiest score I’ve ever given.

Seppeltsfield Road
Seppeltsfield Road / Courtesy of Seppeltsfield

The wine in question came last in a blind lineup of fortified selections. The style is historically significant to Australian wine, but also one that, in part because of its decline in popularity and how little is exported, few Americans get the opportunity to taste.

I could tell after the first few wines that this wasn’t any old flight of “stickies,” as the Aussies call them. They were unctuous and sweet, but never syrupy or confected, with layer upon layer of aroma and flavor.

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My scores were very high for some. I thought the first wine, later discovered to be Chambers Rosewood Vineyards NV Rare Muscat from Rutherglen, couldn’t possibly be topped. I’d scored it a rare and lofty 99 points. Then, I reached for the last glass in the lineup.

The color, a deep molasses brown, was striking. A single swirl revealed a texture less like wine and more like treacle.

I inhaled, and my eyes closed involuntarily to fully take in the deep well of aromas. Then a taste. I threw my head back in pleasure, transported to another time and place, and nearly toppled from my chair.

Composing myself, I refastened my analytical hat. There was a balance of extraordinary freshness and intense concentration, the alcohol neatly tucked away. I took in waves of evocative flavor profiles: a box of the finest nuts and chocolates; a stroll through the woods on an autumn day; a library stacked with vintage books and a worn leather armchair. This wine, I suspected, was very old.

The note was written, score was entered, and the deed was done. My first 100-point wine in the books. All that was left was to find out what it was.

Seppeltsfield 1920 Fortified Wine
Seppeltsfield 1920 Para Vintage Tawny / Photo by Dragan Radocaj

The reveal shared that the wine was Seppeltsfield’s 100-Year Vintage Para Tawny 1920, one of the wine world’s greatest treasures. I grinned: A 100-point score for a 100-year-old wine seemed fitting.

Seppeltsfield 1920 100-Year Vintage Para Tawny Red (South Australia); $1000, 100 points

Seppeltsfield’s Centennial wines have been released annually for past 140 years and are believed to be the only single-vintage wines with such unbroken lineage on the planet. While the full composition is unknown, this now 101-year-old wine is composed primarily of Shiraz and Grenache and fortified with grape spirit. Resembling molasses in both color and texture, it is deeply evocative—a bottomless well of aroma and flavor that goes on and on: first chocolate, dates and praline, then baking spice and coffee beans, then tree sap, forest floor and the dusty spine of an old book. Intensely concentrated yet extraordinarily fresh, it is like drinking the essence of the past, a time in Australia just after WWI when hope was in the air. This is an exceptionally rare beauty that will outlive all of us. Buy now.

The fact that my New York-based self was sat in front of a Seppeltsfield wine at all made me grin even wider. After a very long absence in the U.S., Seppeltsfield has recently returned to our shores, thanks to a new Aussie wine importer, Legend Imports.

Located in the Barossa Valley, Seppeltsfield is one of Australia’s oldest wineries. It was founded in 1851 by Joseph Ernst Seppelt, just 15 years after South Australia was first settled by Europeans.

Like many of the world’s longstanding wineries, it comes with a colorful and fascinating past. The winery shifted gears and ownership several times, but it’s been owned and operated by Warren Randall since 2009, with Fiona Donald as its chief winemaker and Kingsley Fuller as group viticulturist.

Seppeltsfield’s long-aged, fortified wines, namely the “Para Tawny” range, are the jewels in the estate’s crown.

Seppeltsfied wine
Aerial view of Seppeltsfield / Courtesy of Seppeltsfield

The story of the 100-Year Vintage Para Tawny is as remarkable as the liquid inside. In 1878, after 11 years of construction (and the death of the winery’s founder), the Seppelt’s winery and fortified wine cellar was completed.

Joseph Seppelt’s son, Benno, a progressive if quirky visionary, decided to cellar “a puncheon of my finest Port.” He left strict instructions for the barrel to be left “untouched for 100 years.” Impressively, his instructions were followed by his successors to the letter.

The first of Benno’s barrels was released in 1978. For the past 143 years, the winery set aside a barrel (or two, since the winemaking team realized how much was being lost to evaporation) of its finest wine each year. Each treasure would be released 100 years later.

The Seppeltsfield Centennial Collection is believed to be the world’s only unbroken lineage of single-vintage wines that span more than 130 consecutive vintages.

While the full composition of the 1920 bottling is unknown, Shiraz and Grenache play a dominant role. Fortification was done with brandy.

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Today, Seppeltsfield’s extensive winery complex, lined with towering date palms at the edge of the Barossa, feels almost otherworldly. A mishmash of Old World grandeur and New World ambition, it nods vigorously to the past while it ensures that Seppeltsfield and its wines will outlive us all. The forward-thinking Benno would’ve been pleased as punch—or Port.

As for my first 100-point wine, well, the 1920 Para Tawny is as close to time travel as it gets. A living liquid embodiment of the past, it encapsulates a time post-World War I when hopes and ambitions were high in the young nation of Australia. It sat through a century of history waiting for its time to shine. And now it radiates.

In short, there is no wine like it on the planet.

Published on June 22, 2021
Topics: Wine and Ratings